And Other Mysterious Russian Bears

In 1920, a Swedish zoologist, Sten Bergman, saw the skin of a bear from Kamchatka (Siberia), one which he noted was exceptionally large, far beyond the size common to bears in the area. The hair covering the skin was short, in contrast with the long hair associated with normal Kamchatkan bears. It was also a deep black in color.

Bergman also recounted several tracks which were found. The tracks were an astounding 14.5 x 10 inches in size, suggesting a truly monstrous bear. He described the bear as Ursus arctos piscator, but it is more commonly known as Bergman’s bear. Bergman’s bear, sadly, may be extinct, as no sightings were reported since Bergman described the species in 1936.

But it has been noted that throughout the Cold War and possibly beyond, much of Kamchatka was closed off by the military. Could it be possible that the huge bear still thrives, protected from hunters by the military’s cordon? I’m not suggesting any conspiracy here, merely that a fortuitous (for the bear) circumstance may be involved. The saga of the Kamchatkan bears dies for years.

Only to be resurrected. Rodion Sivobolov, a huntsman living on the shores of the Bering Sea in northern Kamchatka, revealed another of the world’s cryptozoological mysteries in the late 1980s. Sivobolov had heard native descriptions of a strange bear known as irkuiem (‘trousers pulled down’) or kainyn-kutho (‘god bear’). The Korjak and Chukchi natives described a beast with forelegs far longer than the hind, and a bulge of fat between the hind legs which often reaches to the ground, giving the appearance of a pulled-down pair of pants, and the creature its name. The beast’s numbers were declining, the hunter said, since the introduction of rifles to the area.

N.K. Vereshchagin was one of the Russian biologists who received a description of the Irkuiem from the hunter. Vereshchagin advanced a radical theory that the mysterious ‘trousers pulled down’ was a surviving remnant of Arctodus simus, a truly monstrous prehistoric bear native to North America and Russia. The bear stood nearly six feet tall at the shoulders, and was twice as large as the largest ursine when it reared up on its hind legs. Vereshchagin wrote a 1987 article in the magazine Ohota in which he advanced the Arctodus theory.

Other biologists, even those who believed Sivobolov’s story, did not agree with Vereshchagin’s theory. They pointed out (and rightfully so, I might add) that the prehistoric bear did not at all resemble the fabled Irkuiem. In fact, it had quite long legs, legs considerably longer than those attributed to the Irkuiem, in any case.

And so the saga of the bear died down, for two years at least. In 1989, another biologist, Valerij Orlov, wrote of a Kamchatkan mystery bear. The geologist Oleg Kuyaev launched a hunt for the bear, which was feared by Kamchatkan reindeer herders and was said to cross the Chukchi Sea from Alaska via ice floes. Orlov’s account was published in Vokrug Sveta.

Unlike Vereshchagin, Orlov felt that the possibility of an unknown bear was miniscule at best and felt that the mystery bear was likely a polar bear Ursus maritimus which strayed into the Bering Sea and thence Kamchatka. He even theorized there could have been a permanent colony of polar bears in Kamchatka, accounting for the prevalence of the Irkuiem in legend (George M. Eberhart does, indeed, recount traditions of a gigantic polar bear known as the qoqogaq among Alaska's Inuit).

Orlov was soon contacted by F.R. Shtilmark. Shtilmark was one of those who had received a letter from Sivobolov. Still skeptical, Orlov wrote to the huntsman, asking for more information and at the same time writing to a Kamchatkan game inspector. The inspector noted that there were no reports of a strange bear in the region; he theorized that a freak specimen of polar bear was responsible. Meanwhile, the hunter wrote back to Orlov; he enclosed a photograph of an Irkuiem skin.

Orlov and the inspector both felt the skin was that of a common brown bear. In subsequent letters, the hunter sent more photos of skins and even estimated there were only 120-135 Irkuiem left. However, he produced no convincing evidence such as a skull or teeth.

The saga of the Irkuiem, sadly, seems to end there. In 1993, a work on Russian bears definitively put a stop to the question of Arctodus survival, and in 1996, Orlov had the last word on the Irkuiem, when he stated that no news had come from Kamchatka in several years.

So the question remains: did Sten Bergman actually describe a cryptozoological legend? Was Ursus arctos piscator the true culprit behind stories of the Irkuiem and the Kamchatkan god-bear? And a question begging to be asked: is the bear, indeed, extinct? Or does it still lurk out in the Kamchatkan wilds?

    1999       Cryptozoology A-Z (w/ Jerome Clark).  New York: Simon & Schuster/Fireside.

EBERHART, Geaorge M.
    1980       A Geo-Bibliography of Anomalies.  Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.

RYBALKO, Vladimir A. 
    1998       Pers. comm. (December 9).

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